The Rest of Us

Congress passed unemployment relief this summer over sustained Republican objections. Having lost that battle, Republicans in Congress are still fighting to maintain tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. There’s a fundamental problem here.

James Madison recorded George Mason telling the Constitutional Convention on May 31, 1787:

We ought to attend to the rights of every class of the people. He [Mason] had often wondered at the indifference of the superior classes of society to this dictate of humanity & policy, considering that however affluent their circumstances, or elevated their situations, might be, the course of a few years, not only might but certainly would, distribute their posterity throughout the lowest classes of Society. Every selfish motive therefore, every family attachment, ought to recommend such a system of policy as would provide no less carefully for the rights – and happiness of the lowest than of the highest orders of Citizens.

To which we should add another – our own economic welfare. All business is based on people who can buy their products. When people are unemployed, bankrupted or otherwise impoverished, their hardships ripple through the entire economy. To update John Dunne, no person is an island.

So what economic sense does it make to cut taxes for the wealthy but deny unemployment compensation to people out of work? The national Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, and their allies want everyone to pay taxes except the people who have money to pay. And they want to cut any services that require taxes, especially those that make it possible for people to make a decent living. Their economic theory must be that business people will invest regardless of who’s buying and that the health of the buying public is irrelevant to business. What economic sense does that make? From the same source we get tax withholding for the wages most of us earn but no withholding for interest or dividends.

Economic policy should be based on plans for a healthy economy, or dealing with the problems that the mass of decent Americans have in an economic recession. Unfortunately a lot of conservative economic policy is based on prejudice. We’re good. They’re not. We deserve our advantages. They don’t deserve a helping hand. Bailouts for the wealthy but not one cent for the poor. Or people yell loudly about who should be investigated – keep the IRS off the backs of the super wealthy but investigate welfare cheats.

I understand that many people like feel good politics. You’re terrific so you get rewards. They’re not so they don’t. But our economic problems are no mirage and will not be solved with comforting verbal formulas. In the face of serious national difficulties that threaten us all, the intransigence of the Republican congressional minority is a national tragedy.

 This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 21, 2010.

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